Just as sci-fi films are forever indebted to the fiction of Ray Bradbury and Phillip K. Dick, horror films are equally indebted to Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. And just as Phillip K. Dick has given the sci-fi genre a more subversive, surreal alternative to Bradbury’s classic stories, Lovecraft’s fiction has helped give horror its darker underbelly with an endless catalog of freaky, mind-altering stories inhabited by strange gods, forbidden knowledge, and protagonists who foolishly try to find the truth behind all those unseen things that don’t as much bump as slither their way in the night. While nowhere near comprehensive, I do humbly offer the following list of what I think are the best Lovecraft story-to-film adaptations. If you think I’ve made a glaring oversight or omission, feel free to have at me in the comments section.
5. In the Mouth of Madness (1995, Directed by John Carpenter)
In the Mouth of Madness is the third film (preceded by The Thing and The Prince of Darkness) in what Carpenter refers to as his “Apocalypse Trilogy.” The film follows the story of John Trent, a private investigator hired to find the missing horror novelist Sutter Cane and recover his unpublished masterpiece. Trent thinks the entire affair is a publicity stunt, but his hard boiled cynicism is quickly engulfed as he finds himself more and more drawn into Sutter Cane’s surreal and grotesque fiction. The entire fabric of reality, it turns out, is slowly being ripped apart and rewritten by Cutter’s strange manuscript. The story is only loosely based on Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” but it captures some of his more salient themes, especially the blending of realities, and an unseen, esoteric threat that seeps into our world from its darkest fringes. In typical Lovecraft fashion, the truth does not set you free; instead, it drives you insane.
4. The Resurrected (1992, Directed by Dan O’Bannon)
Dan O’Bannon is one of the hardest-working, yet underrated directors in Hollywood. He’s worked behind the scenes, as both writer and special effects expert, for a number of impressive films, including Dark Star, Star Wars, Alien, Heavy Metal, and Total Recall. He directed one of the best zombie movies of the 80’s, The Return of the Living Dead, and he also directed The Resurrected, one of the most successful adaptations of Lovecraft I’ve ever seen. It’s a direct, and largely faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The story is simple enough. Claire Ward hires John Ward, a private detective, to find out why her husband, Charles Dexter Ward, is acting so strangely. It turns out that Charles has taken a new interest in his family’s ancient traditions of witchcraft and necromancy. John Terry performs one of his best roles before playing Jack’s father in Lost, and Chris Sarandonis terrific as Charles. But what makes O’Bannon’s adaption so impressive is the way in which it captures the slow, brooding, yet increasingly menacing tone of Lovecraft’s best work.
3. From Beyond (1986, Directed by Stuart Gordon)
No list of Lovecraft adaptations could be complete without Stuart Gordon, a director who’s based much of his career on bringing Lovecraft to the screen. Finally released on DVD last year, From Beyond is based on the Lovecraft story of the same name and features his classic premise that our world is co-inhabited by unseen, yet very dangerous forces. In the film, the brilliant, but socially awkward Dr. Crawford Tillinghast learns how to manipulate the pineal gland using a device called a resonator. In an unforeseen side-effect, the device enables its subject to see inter-dimensional creatures who, once seen, can exert their malignant influence. The film is infamous for its level of gore and depictions of S&M sex, much of which was censored in its original release, but restored in the DVD version. While it’s true that many 80s horror films were arguably too caught up in competitions to raise their levels of gore, the gross-out factor in From Beyond is more than simply gratuitous, and reflects Lovecraft’s recurring theme of sexuality, and the human body itself as something inherently dangerous. His stories often ooze off their page with their depictions of flesh as something fetid, putrid, and infested. Watching From Beyond probably won’t give you chills, but it might make you feel like something sticky is slithering its way down your spine.
2. Dagon (2001, Directed by Stuart Gordon)
Dagon might just be Stuart Gordon’s very best work. It’s an underrated gem, and while it takes quite a few liberties with its source material, it’s still a nearly perfect adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Insmouth and Dagon. In the story, Paul and Barbara, two American tourists, are shipwrecked in a small fishing village off the coast of Galicia in Spain. They soon discover that the inhabitants of this town have revived their long-abandoned worship of the ancient sea god Dagon. In exchange for bringing the inhabitants of this town wealth and power, they are slowly transforming into grotesque human-fish hybrids. The film is visually stunning, but what makes the story itself so intriguing is the manner in which Paul finds himself at first horrified, and then strangely seduced by the inhabitants of this town as he learns he has much more in common with them than he at first realized. Gordon downplays his campier treatment of Lovecraft’s themes in previous films such as Re-Animator and instead focuses instead on Lovecraft’s recurring fear that that something primitive, threatening, and yet strangely seductive, is festering at the edges of our seemingly modern, civilized world.
1. The Call of Cthulhu (2005, Produced by Sean Branney and Andrew Leman)
Based on one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories of the same name, The Call of Cthulhu, distributed by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, is certainly the most daring, and perhaps the most successful, adaptation of Lovecraft to date. Filmed using “Mythoscope,” a blend of modern and authentically vintage filming techniques, The Call of Cthulhu looks like an actual 1920s-era film. The actors even play their parts in a deliberate 1920s style, and the special effects are all faithful to the technologies of the period. I’ll admit that I had some reservations about all of this before I actually watched the film, but it’s far more than a gimmick. The film looks gorgeous, especially with the expressionist angles and set design reminiscent of other silent-era horror films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. All of these techniques give the film a specific tone and feel that no other adaptation has been able to capture. The story involves an anthropologist who discovers that his great-uncle died under mysterious circumstances after learning about the resurgence of an ancient cult devoted to the god Cthulhu. The film captures the dizzying, intoxicating web of partial truths and clues as he tries to piece together a very ancient, very dangerous puzzle that becomes all the more unfathomable every time he thinks he reaches the bottom of it. Fans of Lovecraft need to see this film immediately, but anyone even remotely interested in film history should see it as well.
Despite Corey’s strong verbal and physical protests, I didn’t include Re-Animator in my list. I love Stuart Gordon. I love the entire Re-Animator franchise. But, truth be told, I don’t think it’s his best Lovecraft adaptation, and I thought I should limit this list to only two selections from his work. Dagon does a better job of capturing Lovecraft’s atmospheric weirdness that permeates nearly every sentence of his prose, while From Beyond does a better job of reflecting Lovecraft’s obsession with treating human flesh and sexuality as grotesque and dangerous terrains. Another work that didn’t make this list is Doug Bradley’s adaptation of “The Outsider.” It’s not actually a film, but Bradley’s reading of the entire story with an original soundtrack, visuals, and animation in the background. Bradley’s voice-acting is incredible, as are the visuals. It’s refreshing that Bradley pays such careful tribute to Lovecraft’s actual text, and I’ve never seen a film come this close to bringing Lovecraft’s work to life. You really have to see it and hear it to believe it. So check out the free preview of the work here.
Lovecraft fans can’t go wrong with any of the films mentioned above. Sadly, however, not all Lovecraft adaptations end up as successful as these. In my next installment on Lovecraft-inspired films, I’ll bravely delve into what consider the worst Lovecraft inspired film adaptations, a list which includes one of the most pathetic Saw knock-offs made thus-far, and a film featuring killer vegetables.